Brain Pickings

Was Shakespeare Shakespeare? 11 Rules for Critical Thinking

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To be or not to be certain — an exercise in the art and science of doubt.

It’s been argued that Shakespeare changed everything. Yet even if this is true, it’s true of the literature we consider Shakespeare’s legacy — which, it turns out, might not be Shakespeare’s after all. So holds the Authorship Question — the age-old debate about whether or not a single man we refer to as Shakespeare authored the legendary sonnets and plays. Currently, there are three contenders for the authorship throne: “Startford” (the man from the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, or Traditional Shakespeare), “Oxford” (Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford), or “Ignatus” (an unnamed and unidentified third person).

In AKA Shakespeare: A Scientific Approach to the Authorship Question (public library), Stanford astrophysicist Peter Surrock, who lists as his credentials “a love of literature and a fondness for attempting to solve problems … coupled with a conviction that scientific thinking need not be restricted to scientific problems,” presents a DIY kit for assessing the Authorship Question, applying scientific principles to the four-centuries-old dispute. Surrock writes:

Why another book about the Shakespeare Authorship Question? Because the identity of the author we know as “Shakespeare” remains an open question. Most scholars of English literature maintain that he was a gentleman of that or similar name who was born and died in the small town of Stratford-upon-Avon in the County of Warwickshire in England. However, there are a growing number of independent scholars who dispute that contention. The scholastic community has not persuaded the independent scholars to see the error of their ways. But neither have the independent scholars persuaded the orthodox scholars to see the error of their ways. The Authorship Problem therefore remains unresolved.

Unusual in both form and format, the book is written as a dialogue between four characters of various skills and perspectives — a Shakespeare-Is-Shakespeare believer, a fierce skeptic, and two participants of neutral disposition who are there to shepherd the scientific process. What emerges is part choose-your-own-adventure novel, part Baloney Detection Kit, tickling your critical thinking and guiding you through various pieces of information as you make up your own mind about The Bard’s identity.

The the toolkit — being a product of science — does involve some number-crunching, a tool on the book’s companion site affectionately named Prospero will analyze your judgments of the evidence and produce a result in favor of Stratford or Oxford or Ignotus.

But perhaps best of all is the checklist of credos that underpin the analytical tool. Dubbed Prospero’s Precepts, these eleven rules culled from some of history’s greatest minds can serve as a general-purpose guideline for critical thinking in all matters of doubt:

  1. All beliefs in whatever realm are theories at some level. (Stephen Schneider)
  2. Do not condemn the judgment of another because it differs from your own. You may both be wrong. (Dandemis)
  3. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. (Francis Bacon)
  4. Never fall in love with your hypothesis. (Peter Medawar)
  5. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts. (Arthur Conan Doyle)
  6. A theory should not attempt to explain all the facts, because some of the facts are wrong. (Francis Crick)
  7. The thing that doesn’t fit is the thing that is most interesting. (Richard Feynman)
  8. To kill an error is as good a service as, and sometimes even better than, the establishing of a new truth or fact. (Charles Darwin)
  9. It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. (Mark Twain)
  10. Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong. (Thomas Jefferson)
  11. All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed, second, it is violently opposed, and third, it is accepted as self-evident. (Arthur Schopenhauer)

Itching to solve the age-old mystery for yourself? Grab a copy of AKA Shakespeare and head over to Prospero to calculate your final degrees of belief, which Surrock and his research team will add to those of others before publishing a summary of the crowd-sourced results.

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